NEW ORLEANS - Prime Minister Stephen Harper waved a red flag Tuesday in the debate over NAFTA's future, warning Americans who want to reopen the accord that U.S. dependence on Canadian oil gives Canada a big bargaining chip.
Harper staked out his position as he joined presidents George W. Bush of the United States and Felipe Calderon of Mexico at a joint news conference to end their three-way summit that turned into a pep rally for keeping NAFTA intact in the face of threats from the Democratic presidential contenders to kill or rewrite it.
Calderon said reopening the pact would "condemn the region to complete backwardness" while India, China and the European Union are increasing their competitiveness.
Bush argued those "who say get rid of NAFTA as a throwaway political line" are playing with fire because ditching the agreement would cost jobs and investment in all three countries.
Harper said the deal has been good for North America and that the Canadian government's preference is not to renegotiate it. But he made clear he was ready to go that route if need be.
"We'll be prepared for any eventuality," Harper said of the November presidential election where the two Democratic contenders - Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - have said the agreement needs to be killed or rewritten to toughen environmental and labour standards.
Harper took the opportunity to play what many consider Canada's trump card in any future negotiations - U.S. dependence on Canadian oil and gas.
"Canada is the United States' No. 1 supplier of energy," he said. "We are a secure and stable supplier that is of critical importance to the future of the United States.
"If we have to look at this kind of an option (a renegotiation), I say quite frankly, you know, we would be in an even stronger position now than we were 20 years ago. And we will be in a stronger position in the future."
Bush played to Harper's tune, stressing more than once that Mexico and Canada stand out as secure and stable suppliers of oil at a time when prices are going through the roof at almost $120 US a barrel and when other U.S. suppliers in the Middle East are unpredictable at best.
Under the free-trade agreement, Canada is committed to keeping up its energy supplies to the United States even in times of shortages at home. In effect, it says cuts to U.S. buyers can be no deeper than they would be to Canadians.
Harper said he expects the next president will come to see the importance of the pact to North America and continue to work with it.
Calderon announced the next annual summit of the three North American leaders would be held in Mexico in 2009, and said that he hoped to see the new president there.
The annual meetings began in 2005 when Bush signed Canada and Mexico onto the post-NAFTA process, known as the Security and Prosperity Partnership.
The whirlwind summit in hurricane-battered New Orleans was designed by Bush to showcase the city's recovery. The leaders stayed close to the centre of town, which was largely spared Katrina's wrath in 2005.
Before leaving New Orleans, Harper did do a quick tour of Ward Nine, the area hardest hit by Katrina. His guide was David Wilkins, U.S. ambassador to Canada.
The leaders spoke with reporters after meeting business leaders from all three countries who make up the North American Competitiveness Council. The council, which includes 10 leaders from each country, pressed the leaders to stick with NAFTA and also to press ahead with efforts under the SPP to deepen the economic, social, environmental and security relations among the three countries.
"When I meet business people, not just from our country, but around the continent the benefits of our NAFTA relationship is without question," he said. "And what all the focus is in our discussions is how to make it work better, how to make the borders thinner, how to make commerce flow more quickly, more freely."
Canadian critics of NAFTA and the SPP were quick to jump on Harper's stance, saying they were upset that he was talking about U.S. energy security without mentioning the need to secure Canada's own energy security.
"There was not one word about Canada's energy security," said Dave Coles, president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union.
"Eastern Canada is still in a position where all of its oil must come through the United States even though it starts in Alberta and Saskatchewan."
© Ottawa Citizen 2008
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